Profile: Allen Koppe
As one of Australia’s most well-respected cinematographers, Allen Koppe ACS’ career behind cameras has spanned more than thirty years.
The Sydney creative has spent the larger part of his life honing his skills in the industry and now at the age of sixty can glance back at a lengthy string of accolades including a Gold Award for his work for Amnesty International, a host of recognition for his work in automotive advertising and in 2006 became an accredited member of the Australian Cinematographers Society.
But lesser known about Koppe is his equally fierce love of black and white photography; what he calls a creative outlet and at times a “rebellion” against the typical demands of cinema. Koppe’s work, often recognisable by his square framing and tendency towards long exposures, helps to transform urban and other landscapes into ethereal and minimal compositions.
And while it might be tempting to draw the conclusion that Koppe’s professional work and his private pursuit of photographs must substantially overlap, he is quick to insist that while cameras are the common denominator across his career and spare time, a firm line is draw between his approach to cinema and his approach to still images.
Outside the “cinematic rectangle” of his nine to five, Koppe’s creativity takes flight, scrambling down a rock face to the bottom of a lighthouse or as he says simply “driving around until you see something that catches your eye”.
Whether the built environment or a windswept plain, Koppe’s dedication to the monochrome image has laid the basis for a startling large body of black and white landscapes that are beginning to draw as much recognition as his motion-based work.
A love of the craft
Like many successful visual creatives, Koppe’s love for photography (and indeed black and white photography) began when he picked up his father’s camera as a schoolboy.
Born and raised in Sydney, Koppe’s first foray into photography with his father’s Praktika would become the basis for a portfolio that ultimately saw his admission to North Sydney Technical College’s (NSTC) film production program.
But as Koppe says himself, it was a combination of his practical nature and some career-oriented advice from his parents that led to an emphasis on the moving image rather than the still.
“When I was at school I had hoped to become an artist because I always liked the visual,” says Koppe.
“But I guess I was discouraged from that by my parents who kind of said ‘yeah, great, but you need to earn a living’. So I thought that cinematography was a way for me to have some visual expression and earn a dollar at the same time.”
After graduation from NSTC, Koppe worked as both a camera assistant and picked up work video storyboard editing and operating a projectionist’s booth for Leo Burnett - an advertising agency in the heart of Sydney.
It was through his time at Leo Burnett’s that Koppe got to know fellow Australian cinematographer John Lowry - whom Koppe would go on to work with for several years.
“We hit it off and I essentially went to work as a freelance assistant to John for many years,” Koppe recounts.
"That’s where I picked up a lot of skills for the trade. I was a focus puller, clapper loader and things like that.” But with his love for the craft still at full tilt and with an ambition up to the ears, Koppe would spend the majority of his free time shooting his own material, leading to a string of music videos that would become the staple of his early career.
Music videos were “all about the visuals”, says Koppe allowing the young creative an opportunity to hone his personal style through “crazy techniques” like double exposures and other things. “That’s how I built up a showreel that allowed me to get into commercials and a career shooting TV ads”, he says.
A creative outlet
For Koppe, photography is firmly a creative release and perhaps even a rejection against the technical and creative guidelines often imposed upon his day job.
“I find that photography offers me a freedom that I don’t have with my cinema work. Still photography for me is really indulgent and I tend not to think the same way when I’m doing my cinematography,” he explains.
It's a sentiment that becomes very clear when considering that the vast majority of his work is cropped square. Whether a formal composition leaning on architecture photography or gloomy depiction of an early morning seascape, Koppe’s square crop is ubiquitous across his subject matter.
“Perhaps that is some kind of revolt or a backlash against 16:9 or the cinematic rectangle!” he laughs.
“I think the reason I really like square is that it exaggerates the graphic nature of the picture and the elements in the frame feel stronger in a square composition.”
Another defining trait of Koppe’s still images is the use of long exposures. Often exposing for up to four minutes, water in Koppe’s seascapes becomes a foggy mass enveloping the scene’s inanimate objects and usually still skyscapes take on an animated appearance.
Having recently switched from a Canon DSLR to Fujifilm’s flagship medium format GFX range, Koppe achieves his long exposures at various times of the day using an array of neutral density filters ranging from 6 to 10 stops in reduction.
Despite hauling around the rather hefty size and weight of the GFX body, Koppe says he likes to keep his kit to a minimum when in the field (only carrying with him a small selection of lenses and a tripod) and that some of the desired mood in his pictures is achieved in post-production rather than by using anymore filters than necessary.
“There is an element of photoshop in my images and I’m not afraid to say that. It’s just another aspect of the image making process. I’m not a purist from that perspective,” says Koppe.
"It doesn’t all happen in camera but there is a conversation between how I want an image to feel and what I need to do in Photoshop in order to augment and refine the final product.
For me, Photoshop is very much like when I was a kid and doing a lot of drawing. It’s all about solving problems and trying to manipulate an image to feel the way I want it to feel.”
Just do it
Despite an obvious level of required technical knowledge as a professional cinematographer (and an avid semi-professional photographer), in his advice to younger generations of aspiring photographers, Koppe puts very little emphasis on the technical aspects of visual discipline.
In fact, he advocates almost entirely for a “just get out there and shoot” sort of ethos.
“Don’t worry about the gear. I think we all love a bit of tinkering but essentially I don’t think it’s a big deal and you don’t need the biggest and the best gear,” says Koppe.
“I’ve got some nice gear now because I can but I wouldn’t sweat too much about having the latest and greatest.
The main thing is just to get out there and try and work out what it is that makes you feel right about the pictures you’re taking.”
Simply by looking across the breadth of landscapes and seascapes present in Koppe’s work, it’s clear that the Sydney-based photographer is a fan of venturing far from his home in search of images, with a large portion of the catalyst for his love of the medium being informed by a healthy sense of adventure and exploration.
“I love climbing down rock faces to the bottom of lighthouses and things like that, you know. For me, it’s as much about the process as it is about the pictures,” he says.
But while Koppe admits he loves nothing more than to be driving down a country road and letting the subject matter present itself, he is quick to add that his work is not immune to influence by others.
When not seeking his own formal compositions on a remote plain of New South Wales or a rugged coastline on Australia’s eastern seaboard, Koppe trades his salt-encrusted tripod for a healthy amount of time spent trawling Instagram.
“Instagram has really been good because it has pushed me to go out and take more pictures,” he says. “And my photography is getting better because I’m aware of others’ work and I want to get out there and take more photos.”
While Koppe could certainly look back at a career punctured by awards and acclaim for both his motion and stills work, the 60-year-old seems to not be resting on his laurels for one moment.
Recalling his initial spark for the love of photography in a Sydney bookshop some years ago, he ties his continued passion for the medium to his on-going interest in both black and white images and to long exposures - a craft that he has almost certainly come to perfect.
“I love black and white and I love the magic that black and white brings to an image,” he says. Early on, I was greatly influenced by photographer Michael Kenna,” he says.
“I remember going into a bookshop in Surry Hills in Sydney, picking up one of his books and basically my life changed then and there. I wanted to pursue photography ever since.”
When it comes to black and white photography, Allen Koppe's sense of adventure has taken him to the most windswept seascapes Australia can conjure. But surely it’s his devotion to perfecting what he does, regardless of the medium, that will keep him at the top of his game. ❂
Allen’s tips for great black and white images
- Get off the couch! Get out and look about. One of the things I like about B&W is that by nature it has graphic appeal. I look for shapes, light and tones that will compliment an image. I often shoot either really early or late afternoon when the light is low.
- Buy some ND filters and a tripod. Most of my B&W photography is achieved using long exposures. I am drawn to subjects that share a static object within an environment that displays some movement. This could be in the form of clouds or the ocean etc. Keeping it simple is the key and look for locations that suggest a simple minimalist form. Start by shooting some buildings against a cloudy sky. The results can be stunning.
- Learn to process. I taught myself to use Photoshop and this has become an important tool in the photographic process. As a teenager I used to make prints in a darkroom and now I use a computer to enhance my images. If you prefer shooting film then thats great too and the photographic principals are much the same. I try not to judge the value of an image on how it was made and prefer to either like it or not based on how it looks.